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Metamaterials Moguls: Gates, Allen Back New Radar Startup Echodyne

Fri, 12/19/2014 - 16:07
Benjamin Romano

Microsoft’s co-founders are backing a Seattle-area startup that wants to apply proprietary metamaterials technology to radar.

Bill Gates is co-leader with Madrona Venture Group of a $15 million Series A funding round for Echodyne, which will seek to commercialize the metamaterials technology portfolio of Intellectual Ventures “for a wide range of new radar applications,” Gates says in a news release. Vulcan Capital, the investment vehicle of Microsoft’s other co-founder, Paul Allen, is joining the investment, along with other investors including Lux Capital and The Kresge Foundation.

Intellectual Ventures (IV), the controversial patent holding and invention shop co-founded by former Microsoft chief technology officer Nathan Myhrvold, has now spawned three companies focused on different applications of metamaterials—artificial materials often assembled in patterns and with structures engineered to have specific effects on light, sound, radio, or other waves.

Gates and Lux Capital are also among the investors in Kymeta, the best-known IV spinout in the field, which is applying metamaterials to satellite antennas. The Redmond, WA, company earlier this week announced a $20 million funding round, on top of $62 million it had raised since spinning out of IV in 2012. It also installed co-founder and CTO Nathan Kundtz as interim CEO as it looks for a permanent replacement for Vern Fotheringham, who is stepping down at the end of the year.

Meanwhile, Evolv Technologies, based in Boston, is applying related technology to advanced imaging, and last year raised $11.8 million.


The latest spinout, Echodyne, is co-founded by Eben Frankenberg and Tom Driscoll, who had senior leadership roles at IV. Frankenberg, Echodyne’s CEO, was previously in charge of IV’s efforts to spin out companies and was its chief operating officer. Driscoll, who is CTO, directed IV’s Metamaterials Commercialization Centerdescribed as “a team of engineers, physicists, and scientists dedicated to furthering the development and commercial readiness of our metamaterials inventions.” Driscoll also researched metamaterials at Duke University and University of California, San Diego, with which IV has collaborated on the technology.


Metamaterials promise “electronically scanned radar systems that are less expensive, smaller, thinner, lighter, and less power-hungry than existing devices,” according to a description from the Metamaterials Commercialization Center, which shows a picture of unmanned drone aircraft and a passenger car on the road. [Editor's note: Shortly after Xconomy posted this story, the page from which this description was taken--- was removed.]

“Radar is a pervasive technology that touches almost all aspects of society today, including civil, defense, commercial, and consumer applications,” the description continues. “Radar is essential to weather forecasting, aviation, maritime navigation, and national defense. Within the next decade, radar will be integral to autonomous vehicles, which promise to dramatically reduce the number of traffic accidents and fatalities.”

“I’m very excited about the market potential for our breakthrough metamaterials-based radars,” Frankenberg says in the news release. “They stand to be disruptive to existing radar markets, but also enabling for whole new categories of radars never before contemplated or thought possible.”

Bellevue, WA-based Echodyne, not surprisingly, isn’t saying much more about its specific strategy, making a pun about this stealthy, under-the-radar startup irresistible.

Suffice it to say that Seattle’s richest and most successful technology entrepreneurs have decided to bet big on this technology, and to place those bets on companies based locally.

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EdgeWave Adds $2M to Extend Overhaul of Enterprise Cybersecurity

Wed, 12/17/2014 - 13:40
Bruce V. Bigelow

San Diego-based EdgeWave, which raised $6 million in equity funding in July (and arranged a $5 million credit facility), says today it has raised another $2 million in equity from three investors in an extension of its Series A round.

The cybersecurity company, known previously as St. Bernard Software, a public company, has been moving to a cloud-based approach since 2012, when Dave Maquera took over as CEO. He took the company private and has been leading an overhaul of the company’s technology.

San Diego’s TVC Capital, a private equity firm that specializes in growth equity software deals, added $1.2 million to its previous $6 million investment in Edgewave. Northgate, a Danville, CA-based private equity and venture firm invested $500,000, and RWI Ventures, a Menlo Park, CA-based venture firm, added $300,000 to the mix.

In addition to its Series A preferred shares, TVC also acquired 3 million common shares through an unspecified tender offer.

In a statement, EdgeWave says the additional capital will be used to continue its expansion in enterprise security. The company says its technology counters advanced cyber threats and ensures compliance with network security policies through a combination of artificial intelligence and “military-grade” cyber operations.

EdgeWave named retired Navy Capt. Mike Walls to lead its cybersecurity platform five months ago. Walls previously led a command in Norfolk, VA, that is responsible for defending Navy computer networks from hacker attacks.

William Baumel, managing director at RWI Ventures, says in today’s statement that EdgeWave is “differentiated by its top former military cyber security expertise and security products that independent third-party testing has shown to be superior to the competition.”

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Auspex Shares Soar on Late-Stage Results from Huntington’s Study

Tue, 12/16/2014 - 21:44
Bruce V. Bigelow

San Diego-based Auspex Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: ASPX) says it plans to file a new drug application by mid-2015 after reporting today that its lead drug candidate curbed involuntary movements associated with Huntington’s disease in a late-stage clinical trial.

The price of Auspex shares gained about 65 percent, leaping by more than $16 to $41.21 a share in after-hours trading on the Nasdaq exchange.

Auspex, which became a publicly traded company in February, specializes in replacing hydrogen atoms with deuterium to create longer-lasting versions of small-molecule drugs already approved by the FDA. In a statement released after the market closed, Auspex says a study of its experimental drug SD-809 on patients with the uncontrolled movements characteristic of Huntington’s hit the primary goal as well as multiple secondary endpoints for efficacy—and showed favorable safety and tolerability.

SD-809, the company’s lead drug candidate, is a deuterium-based analog of tetrabenazine (Xenazine), a drug the FDA approved four years ago for treating the involuntary movements, or chorea, associated with Huntington’s disease and other neural disorders. Tetrabenazine is not widely prescribed for Hungtington’s patients because it has relatively high side effects and requires frequent dosing.

Based on the data reported today, Auspex says it expects to file a new drug application by mid-2015 for treating Huntington’s chorea.

Huntington’s disease is a genetic disorder that causes a wide variety of symptoms, including involuntary movements and problems with behavior, emotion, thinking, and processing information. It eventually leads to death.

In addition to favorable safety and tolerability results, Auspex says its study showed low rates of depression, somnolence, anxiety, and restlessness for patients on SD-809.

Auspex says it also collected data on patients who switched from tetrabenazine, the current standard of care, to SD-809, which was given at about half the dose of tetrabenazine. Involuntary movements decreased in patients who received SD-809, according to Auspex, and the company says they could maintain chorea control.

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Coming Soon to a Theater Near You: Magnovision?

Tue, 12/16/2014 - 13:58
Jeffrey M. Zacks

When the ads for Mars vacations came on the TV, Doug Quaid couldn’t turn away. He thought about Mars at work, dreamed about it at night, badgered his wife about going there. She reminded him that they couldn’t afford it—and anyway, Saturn is much nicer. But he could not get Mars out of his head. So after work at the construction site, he went to visit Rekall, Incorporated. Salesman Bob McClane described their memory implant services:

Bob: When you go Rekall, you get nothing but first class memories. Private cabin on the shuttle, deluxe suite at the Hilton, plus all the major sites: Mount Pyramid, the Grand Canal, and of course, Venusville.

Excerpted from:
Flicker, by Jeffrey M. Zacks
Oxford University Press, 2014
Adapted from Chapter 10: “Virtual Futures”

Doug: But how real does it seem?

Bob: As real as any memory in your head.

Doug: Come on, don’t bullshit me.

Bob: No, I’m telling you, Doug, your brain will not know the difference—and that’s guaranteed, or your money back.

Doug was sold. Within a few minutes, he was being sedated and slid into a large circular machine to have his artificial memories inserted directly into his brain. But something went wrong, and the next thing he knew he was on the run from a gang of men with big guns.

The film is Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall, with Arnold Schwarzenegger as Douglas Quaid. The theme is one that has come up repeatedly in the movies of the last few decades: directly manipulating memory using hypothetical future neuroscience techniques. A few other examples: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), The Matrix (1999), Inception (2010), eXistenZ (1999).

In the future, will we be downloading experiences to entertain, to teach ourselves martial arts, cure our depression, or implement a business strategy? The technologies that these movies envision are pretty unrealistic. But let’s consider one more plot: Men and women in lab coats surround an operating table. Their faces are hidden by surgical masks and hats. The table is completely covered by sterile sheets, except for a rectangle, about 6 by 4 inches, through which pulsing brain tissue can be seen. One of the people in lab coats, a man, lifts a thin probe, leans in, and touches it to the exposed living brain. From beneath the sheet comes a voice: “I can see the most wonderful lights.” A little later, “Did you pour cold water on my hand?” Then, “I can smell burnt toast.”[i]

Another science fiction film? No, this is real. And it’s not even the latest thing—not by a long shot. I just described a brain surgery conducted by the Montreal neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield in 1934, to treat a patient with a severe seizure disorder. Penfield, building on studies in animals, used electrical stimulation to probe the function of brain areas before operating. These methods proved invaluable, and are now standard procedure in neurosurgery units around the world. Over decades, Penfield and his colleagues were able to establish that the evoked visual responses in primary sensory and motor areas, and in parts of the brain controlling speech, are predictable and replicable. Creating experience by directly stimulating the brain is by no means science fiction; it is an everyday part of medical practice.

But it has limits. The sensory and motor experiences that we can evoke by stimulation are crude at best—the feel of a touch on your arm or leg, or the visual impression of flashing lights. And of course, there is the obvious practical limitation: You have to have your skull cut open to try it out. I doubt anyone will be showing up for elective brain surgery as entertainment, but it turns out that there are new tools that enable neuroscientists to stimulate the brain in ways that are relatively safe, noninvasive, and with little lasting consequence. These methods may make it possible to take some of Penfield’s techniques out of the operating room.

Here is one option: The business end of the machine looks like an infinity symbol, a figure eight encased in white plastic. The device is called a transcranial magnetic stimulator, and it is one of the more dramatic tools in the neuroscientist’s toolkit. Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) uses magnetic fields to stimulate small bits of brain—in healthy people, without any surgery, and, in most cases, with minimal aftereffects. The unique features of TMS are that it can alter the workings of a pretty small piece of brain, do so very quickly (in a few hundredths of a second), and just as quickly shut off the effect. However, compared to stimulating with a small electrode, TMS is a pretty blunt instrument. A TMS pulse affects a small patch of brain under the magnetic coil—but a small patch of brain is still millions of neurons. It cannot cause any particular neuron or group of neurons in that volume to fire. And the firing induced by the TMS pulse is quite different from normal neural activity. Neuroscientists often think of TMS as working like a quick instantaneous brain lesion that we can turn on and off.

Is this safe? Quite. Dosed out as one or a few pulses at a time, TMS has been shown to have virtually no long-term consequences for brain function. The main drawback is that, depending on where the targeted area is located, some current may be induced in the scalp as well as in the brain. You can’t feel current in the brain, but current in the scalp can cause muscles to twitch and can stimulate pain receptors in the skin, producing a pinching or pricking sensation.[ii] I find it to be no big deal, as do most people who try it.

The effects we can produce with TMS are similar to those that Penfield discovered with his electrodes applied directly to the brain. It will not create a detailed shape or a particular sound, but it could still do some things that might be pretty entertaining. Imagine you are watching a car chase. The Mustang’s brakes are out, and the car is headed for a cliff. As the car swerves, we zap the part of your brain … Next Page »

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Intrigue and Outdated Rules Complicate Big Biotech Patent Fight

Tue, 12/16/2014 - 08:30
Alex Lash

How’s this for strange? What’s likely the most important biotech patent battle of the decade is now being fought under outmoded rules that the U.S. Congress, in a rare spasm of common purpose three years ago, agreed roundly were due for a once-in-a-lifetime overhaul.

The fight is over CRISPR/Cas9, a potential Nobel-winning biotech discovery, and shorthand for a new way to edit and otherwise modify genomes. As a biologist’s research tool, it’s already invaluable. As a medicine, it could fulfill the promise of gene therapy, snipping out faulty genes that cause disease, perhaps replacing them with new, improved ones.

Who invented it and when is the subject of the fight which, like battles over other once-in-a-generation biotechnologies such as RNA interference, monoclonal antibodies, and polymerase chain reaction, could have consequences that resound for decades.

President Obama signed the America Invents Act—a reboot of the U.S. patent system—in 2011. The old system awarded patents to those who were first to invent; the new system rewards those who are first to file a patent application. Because of the grinding gears of putting laws in place, the CRISPR/Cas9 case revolves around the old paradigm—who was first to invent key aspects of the technology. Yet as we’ll see, some aspects of the new rules apply, too. Patent strategy is tricky enough as it is, but this is like playing three-dimensional chess on two different boards.

“There’s a lot of speculation about what can happen and lots of permutations,” says Chelsea Loughran, a patent attorney with Wolf, Greenfield & Sacks in Boston. (Loughran and her colleague Pat Granahan have been tracking the CRISPR/Cas9 IP situation for some time but have no ties to any parties involved.)

The scrum is all the more intense because the technology is fast to build and easy to use. Within a couple years of its invention, it has caught on across the world with scientists who want to cut out or replace genes in organisms from bacteria to mice to monkeys. Work in human cells is starting to emerge, too. New ideas and new uses seem to pop up every day.

“The time frame is so compressed here,” says Caribou Biosciences chief scientific officer Andy May. “The foundational work and the improvements are happening so much closer than in previous instances [of new biotechnologies]. Usually those improvements take many years to develop.”

In a conversation last week, May stressed to me he couldn’t talk about anything patent-related. As I wrote about last month, Caribou has teamed up with Intellia Therapeutics of Cambridge, MA, one of three for-profit startups in the race to turn CRISPR/Cas9 into the latest form of gene therapy. Intellia has exclusive license to Caribou’s suite of CRISPR/Cas9 technology for human therapeutic use.

Caribou’s IP stems from the University of California, Berkeley, where biochemist Jennifer Doudna worked on a crucial idea with others at Berkeley and beyond. They took a defense system that bacteria deploy against viruses, first discovered a quarter-century ago by Japanese researchers, and made key changes that turned the system into a gene-modification tool. They published their work in Science in 2012.

They filed a patent application in March 2013, just before the system switched from first-to-invent to first-to-file. The patent has not yet been granted.

Doudna’s co-inventor, Emmanuelle Charpentier, who has posts at institutes in Sweden and Germany, assigned her portion of the rights not to Caribou but to Crispr Therapeutics, a group founded by Versant Ventures in London. (I wrote about Charpentier’s decision and much of the background of the story for Start-Up earlier this year.)

Here’s where things get a bit twisted around. Until recently Doudna had ties … Next Page »

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Techstars Hires Startup Vet to Run Qualcomm Robotics Accelerator

Tue, 12/16/2014 - 06:40
Bruce V. Bigelow

Ryan Kuder, a San Diego startup veteran who left the mobile device recycler EcoATM earlier this year, has been hired to lead the new robotics startup accelerator that Qualcomm (NASDAQ: QCOM) is establishing under a deal with Techstars.

Boulder, CO-based Techstars, which just announced its 16th startup program last week in Detroit, named Kuder as managing director of what’s officially known as the “Qualcomm Robotics Accelerator, powered by Techstars.” The new accelerator, announced in October, will be based at Qualcomm’s San Diego headquarters.

Robotics teams that enroll in the program will move into space that Qualcomm has been renovating, and will get access to prominent experts in robotics and startups that Qualcomm and Techstars have recruited for the program. Kuder, who blogged about his new job here, says he’s already begun hiring a small Techstars team to manage the 16-week program. Applications will be accepted through Feb. 22, and the program begins May 26.

Ryan Kuder

“We are working our hardest to find great robotics startups to move to San Diego and become awesome companies,” Kuder says. “We want you to be as successful as you can be, because we are going to be investing in your company.”

Among other things, the Techstars team will oversee the selection of 10 robotics startups for the program, which is set to run through Sept. 15. Each company that enrolls in the accelerator will get a $20,000 investment from Techstars in exchange for a 6 percent ownership stake, and an option to … Next Page »

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Seattle’s QuestionPro Acquires RapidEngage (aka SlimSurveys)

Thu, 12/11/2014 - 23:06
Bruce V. Bigelow

QuestionPro, a Seattle Web-survey and market-research company, has acquired RapidEngage, a San Diego startup with micro survey technology that enables merchants and other businesses to gather customer feedback in less than 30 seconds.

RapidEngage was co-founded in 2012 as SlimSurveys by Sean Callahan, Rodney Rumford, and Daniel Marashlian. They self-funded the startup, and Rumford said they were able to keep their startup costs at a minimum after they were admitted to EvoNexus, the pro bono incubator program operated by San Diego’s CommNexus industry group.

Financial terms of the deal were not being disclosed, Rumford said by phone. The three founders, who were the only RapidEngage employees, have all moved on to separate endeavors, Rumford said.

Daniel Marashlian (left), Sean Callahan, and Rodney Rumford

Marashlian, Callahan, and Rumford had previously developed the photo-sharing app Plixi (known previously as TweetPhoto) that was acquired by Lockerz in 2011.
The founders initially designed SlimSurveys as a mobile micro survey, but Rumford said they expanded the technology to desktop and changed the name to RapidEngage.

QuestionPro, which provides online survey software, says the acquisition will strengthen its offerings by integrating RapidEngage’s feedback technology, which encourages user engagement by connecting with website visitors.

RapidEngage is the eighth EvoNexus company to be acquired, according to a statement released early today.

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West Coast Biotech Roundup: Versant, BayBio/CHI Merger, von Emster

Thu, 12/11/2014 - 15:48
Alex Lash

A programming note: The American Society of Hematology’s annual meeting, which took place Friday through Tuesday in San Francisco, took up much of the week’s biopharma news. We’ve decided to post a separate roundup of our own reports and news we couldn’t cover.

Overshadowed by ASH, there was nonetheless other news on the West Coast.

Versant Ventures, headquartered in San Francisco, announced Wednesday the official close of its fifth fund at $305 million. Xconomy wrote about the fund in July and discussed how Versant has survived the venture shakeout to raise a new fund, unlike many of its peers. It has done so with major strategic shifts, revamping its roster of partners, and expanding from Vancouver, BC, where eastward into Canada’s other major cities. (Much of the new fund is bankrolled by Canadian limited partners.) Promotions for the new fund: Tom Woiwode is now managing director, and Guido Magni, Gianni Gromo, and Jerel Davis are now partners.

Versant also announced Wednesday that its new Blueline Bioscience incubator in Toronto has spun out its first company, Northern Biologics, also based in Toronto. Northern’s $10 million Series A is provided entirely by Versant. Celgene (NASDAQ: CELG), of Summit, NJ, is Versant’s partner in Blueline, but it wasn’t immediately clear whether Celgene gains rights to Northern. The startup is working on a new therapeutic antibody platform and aims to develop programs to treat cancer and autoimmune disease.

Versant’s Canadian hub is Vancouver, where new partner Davis and one part of its Inception Sciences business reside. Inception (also in San Diego) is the center of Versant’s asset-centric push to find single drug programs, and develop them alongside a corporate partner that gets an early option to acquire before the drug reaches clinical trials. The firm has built its portfolio of these “build to buy” programs for a few years, and “2015 will be the year of validation for the model,” says Versant managing director Brad Bolzon, with two companies reaching possible triggers for acquisition.

Versant is up and down the West Coast, and so is heavy rain today, even closing schools in the Bay Area. (Laugh away, folks, that’s not a typo.)

It’s not exactly a flood, but here’s the rest of the West Coast news.

—Two California life science trade groups, BayBio and the San Diego-based California Healthcare Institute, agreed to merge and become the statewide California Biomedical Innovation Alliance. Left out for now is the San Diego-area trade group Biocom, as Xconomy reports here.

—San Francisco-based venture firm venBio saw founding partner Kurt von Emster jump to Abingworth, a 40-year-old group based in London. Von Emster will work from Abingworth’s Menlo Park, CA, office.

—Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen pledged $100 million to found the nonprofit Allen Institute for Cell Sciences in Seattle.

—The San Francisco Business Times noted that Calico of South San Francisco, CA, is hiring for several key positions.


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How Big Data Improves Sales Management and Predicts Performance

Thu, 12/11/2014 - 15:13
Ryan Fuller

Enterprises worth their salt typically use a set of standard key performance indicators (KPIs) to evaluate progress, but there are limits to the effectiveness of these measures in improving or predicting future performance. According to Harvard Business Review, the top KPIs in sales include average annual quota and quota attainment average. The former describes the dollar value of the quota, averaged across quarters, and the latter describes the percentage of time quotas were achieved across an organization or team.

While these KPIs do provide a backward-looking snapshot of a salesperson’s performance, they do nothing to help the salesperson or manager understand the everyday behaviors that are responsible for the outcomes. But what if managers could understand which daily activities are correlated with successful outcomes, intervene earlier for employees who are falling behind, and encourage employees to adopt best practices to improve individual sales performance?

That’s where people analytics comes in. It’s the missing link between real-time work behaviors and quarter-end lagging indicators such as KPI metrics. Ultimately, predicting outcomes and improving productivity allows companies to course-correct before quarterly results come in.

People analytics, an emerging big data technology, draws on aggregated, anonymized data from email, calendar, and other company-specified datasets, to help employees and executives understand how time is invested, and if it’s paying off with increased sales. Put simply, the data helps managers recognize why some employees are not meeting their KPIs and how to best coach them towards improvement. In the absence of these data, managers cannot provide fact-based coaching toward practices that bolster sales within their own organizations.

Imagine, for example, that an underperforming salesperson misses his quota target for the quarter. What options does a manager have? She can coach him based on her observations or experience, or she can reprimand or dismiss him. The latter options aren’t particularly enticing, especially given the high price of attrition.

But there are limits to observations and experience in coaching employees. Without actual data around how the salesperson spends his time or communicates with clients, managers are left to inference, self-reporting, and past experience that might not translate to the employee’s current circumstances. Equipped with real-time, company-generated data, managers can coach employees around specific behaviors that are proven to work within their own organization.

Here’s how people analytics metrics can be paired with standard KPIs to drive sales and improve coaching.

According to data garnered through people analytics, salespeople who consistently meet their quota spend 25 percent more time with customers than underperforming salespeople. This in and of itself isn’t particularly earth-shattering. We assume that when salespeople invest quality time building a relationship with and understanding their customers, it pays off. But by looking at the data over time, we see an interesting trend around when top salespeople invest that time.

High performers invest most of their time with customers at the beginning of the quarter and taper communications by the end, as their internal communications ramp up. Investing time at the start of the quarter allows them to build foundational trust and understanding and facilitate necessary internal communications after that customer rapport is established. This trend was repeated across industries and geographies. Also, customers who received significant attention from a salesperson at the beginning of the quarter spent more overall.

By coaching employees to spend as much time with customers as top performers do, particularly at the beginning of the quarter, managers can train underperforming salespeople on a specific, measurable behavior that is highly correlated with increasing quota size. Managers can also review their company-specific data around this behavior and share it with employees to boost performance on KPIs. Not only does this help managers provide direction, but it also empowers salespeople with a specific action item that has proven its worth within the organization. No longer relegated to deciphering general, ambiguous recommendations from managers, salespeople receive a tangible suggestion that’s based on their peers’ success.

Employees’ effectiveness at internal networking is unexpectedly also correlated with routinely meeting or exceeding quotas. People analytics measures how efficiently a company’s employees build and maintain internal networks, by gathering data on the frequency, duration and intimacy of their interactions (five or fewer people is deemed an “intimate” interaction). Employees who exceed sales quotas tend to have 20 percent larger internal networks and spend 20 percent more time with senior-level management.

This was one of the most interesting correlations we found because it has nothing to do with client interaction or face-time. The significance of the data is twofold. Strong internal networks make it easier to secure a sale and get it approved. And having access to senior-level management means more mentoring and better modeling from experienced salespeople.

Bolstered by this understanding, managers can help underperforming salespeople forge relationships with senior-level management and support employees in growing their internal networks. Managers can also use the data to pair top internal networkers with mid-internal networkers, effectively bridging the gap in proficiency. The data can also help employees prioritize internal networking. Far from mere socializing, internal networking helps salespeople forge connections that are key in making sales happen.

Because the correlation between analytics metrics and sales KPIs are so strong, people analytics data can predict whether a salesperson will miss his or her quota for the quarter, beginning only one month into the quarter. Internal network size, time spent with customers, and the time spent with managers are highly predictive of quota attainment. Moreover, the data can actually help to predict how much money customers will spend based on how much time a salesperson spends with the customer and when during the quarter those interactions take place.

All of this can provide managers an early warning sign that a salesperson might be off track for their quota, and an opportunity to correct-course or at least warn senior executives and shareholders of the lackluster quarterly results ahead.

Anyone who’s taken a basic statistics class understands that correlation does not equal causation. But correlation can illuminate fascinating relationships between behaviors and outcomes. While the data are promising, we should proceed with prudent optimism. People analytics isn’t a cure-all for poor salespeople, and there’s likely a confluence of behaviors that lead to success in sales.

What people analytics can do, however, is provide companies with unprecedented insight about what successful salespeople are doing within their organization that effectively leads to high performance. We can use the data as a basis to coach employees and conduct A/B testing around which behaviors seem to have a causal relationship with high performance, versus an associated relationship. People analytics data provide extraordinary visibility into what successful people do and how others can replicate those behaviors.

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In 4th San Diego Draft, Plug and Play Picks 7 Startups for Bootcamp

Wed, 12/10/2014 - 21:48
Bruce V. Bigelow

It took 11 judges just 30 minutes yesterday afternoon to draft seven seed-stage tech companies to spend three months next year in a startup boot camp at the Plug and Play Tech Center in Sunnyvale, CA.

The seven winners were chosen following presentations by 24 finalists on the 15th floor of a downtown high-rise at 707 Broadway owned by Emmes Asset Management, a firm that envisions the building as a new hub for local technology startups. As the setting sun slanted through windows overlooking San Diego Bay, a founder from each startup got five minutes to make their pitch—three minutes to describe their startup’s technology, strategy, and potential market, and two minutes to answer judges’ questions.

As one first-time observer tweeted:

“It’s kind of like SharkTankABC only less sharky.”

At my first #startup pitching competition – #PNPSD/@PlugandPlayTC. It’s kind of like @SharkTankABC only less sharky.— Stephen Heverly (@spheverly) December 9, 2014

…Or maybe it’s just less obviously sharky.

Teams selected for the startup accelerator program must give up a 5 percent ownership stake in their company to Plug and Play when they enroll. Plug and Play also provides a $25,000 convertible note to each team that converts to an additional ownership stake when the company raises capital in its next institutional round. The size of that stake depends on the company’s valuation at the time.

The 11 judges included Saeed Amidi, founder of the Plug and Play Technology Center in Sunnyvale; Alireza Masrour, Plug and Play managing partner; Alex Roudi, CEO of San Diego-based Interwest Capital; Nathan Fletcher, a Qualcomm senior director for global strategic initiatives; Howard Leonhardt, founder of Leonhardt Ventures (and the California Stock Xchange); and Paul Grossman, managing director of Telegraph Hill Partners.

Founder Saeed Amidi provided an update on Plug and Play “By the Numbers”

Selecting the finalists didn’t take long because judges were scoring each presentation while it was being delivered, said Dave Titus, who served as one of the judges, and works as a business development executive with the Cooley law firm in San Diego.

Several hundred people attended the event, which was the fourth time Plug and Play’s satellite operation in San Diego has drafted local companies for the Silicon Valley bootcamp program. “I would say the quality of this group was by … Next Page »

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Network Security Startup DB Networks Raises $17M

Tue, 12/09/2014 - 15:52
Bruce V. Bigelow

DB Networks, a Carlsbad, CA-based company developing database security technology, says today it has raised $17 million in a new financing round led by Grotech Ventures. The additional cash will be used to advance its network technology and expand its business, according to a statement.

Founded in 2009, DB Networks previously raised a $2.3 million seed round, and $4.5 million in a Series B round early last year. Since then, Brett Helm has moved into a full-time role as DB Networks’ chairman and CEO. At the time, Helm also was serving as the CEO of Coradiant, a San Diego Web applications developer.

Citi Ventures and Khosla Ventures, an existing investor, also invested in the new round for DB Networks.

The company has combined a network device with machine learning and behavior analysis software to automatically detect malicious attacks against databases, which have become the ultimate target of state-sponsored espionage, cyber-crime syndicates, and malicious hacker attacks.

DB Networks says their technology also can provide insights about data moving through core networks, determines whether core network security policies are being violated, and can discover undocumented databases where stolen data might be stored.

“What these new capabilities mean is that in the case of an attack, such as what happened at Target Stores last year, our technology would immediately [notify network administrators] that there are database interactions occurring across network segments in clear violation of policy,” spokesman Mike Sabo says.

Joe Zell, a general partner at Vienna, VA-based Grotech, also joined the company’s board. Other directors include Shirish Sathaye of Khosla Ventures, retired U.S. Army General Dave Bryan, and Bill Stensrud, a networking equipment investor who joined the board last year. “DB Networks enables organizations to effectively cope with advanced threats against their critical information assets in the core network, which is really a first-of-its-kind solution for core database protection,” Zell says in a statement from DB Networks.

In addition to its headquarters in Carlsbad, about 35 miles north of San Diego, Sabo said DB Networks now has offices in Palo Alto, CA, Seattle, Chicago, Atlanta, and New York.

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Members Push Merger of 2 California Life Sciences Industry Groups

Tue, 12/09/2014 - 02:01
Bruce V. Bigelow

The move to combine two nonprofits that are dedicated to advancing California’s life sciences interests was set in motion 11 months ago, when CEO David Gollaher resigned from the San Diego-based California Healthcare Institute (CHI).

Gollaher’s departure from the public policy group he co-founded in 1993 created an opening to assess whether it made sense to merge CHI with BayBio, the life sciences industry group based in South San Francisco, according to OncoMed Pharmaceuticals chairman and CEO Paul Hastings, who is on the boards of both CHI and BayBio.

“We’ve been hearing from our members for some time that in order for us to be competitive that we need to speak with one voice,” Hastings said. “The way one should run a trade organization is to understand what its membership needs are.”

In a statement yesterday, BayBio and CHI said they have signed a letter of intent to combine their operations into a newly created organization, the California Biomedical Innovation Alliance (CBI), in a merger to be completed by the end of March.

Sara Radcliffe

In addition to a new identity, the consolidated group will be headed by a new CEO—Sara Radcliffe, the executive vice president for health at the Washington, D.C.-based Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO). She will begin her new job in January.

In the statement, CHI chairman and Theravance BioPharma chairman and CEO Rick Winningham, says, “The merger of CHI and BayBio will create the strongest possible organization, capable of advocating for policies that support innovation and enable the success of our member organizations, as well as the growth of the life sciences sector within California.”

After CHI’s Gollaher resigned to join Foster City, CA-based Gilead Sciences, Hastings said BayBio and CHI formed a joint committee to evaluate a merger, with three members appointed from each group’s board. BayBio and CHI both wield considerable klout in California’s life sciences industry and beyond. Both boards include prominent industry CEOs and high-ranking pharmaceutical executives, venture capital partners, lawyers, and accounting firm partners.

Todd Gillenwater, a public policy expert who was serving as CHI’s interim president and CEO, will move to … Next Page »

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Pioneer’s Lament: Lack of Checkpoint Immunotherapy For Blood Cancer

Mon, 12/08/2014 - 22:38
Alex Lash

It might be hard to tell these days, but cancer immunotherapy can be disappointing, too. In a lunchtime review Monday at the American Society of Hematology annual meeting in San Francisco, Ronald Levy, a Stanford University professor with a long, storied history in the field, reviewed the trickle of clinical research presented at the meeting that involved so-called checkpoint inhibitors.

These antibody treatments have seen success treating solid tumors by blocking proteins that put the brakes on the immune system. Some tumor cells produce these proteins to hide from the immune system and multiply. Ipilimumab (Yervoy) from Bristol-Myers Squibb (NYSE: BMY) was the first, approved in 2011, and it fights metastatic melanoma by blocking the protein CTLA-4. A more recent approval was pembrolizumab (Keytruda) from Merck (NYSE: MRK), which is also approved for melanoma and has received a “breakthrough” FDA designation for non-small cell lung cancer. It blocks the PD-1 protein.

But no checkpoint inhibitors have been approved to treat hematological cancers; only a few have just reached the clinic, including the two mentioned above. In contrast to the steady beat of data from cell-based therapy programs, only four clinical checkpoint inhibitor studies were submitted to ASH, the year’s biggest showcase in the field.

It’s a “paucity,” according to Levy, whose antibody work in the 1970s and ’80s led to the San Diego company IDEC Pharmaceuticals (which merged with Biogen in 2003, forming Biogen Idec) and its pioneering cancer treatment rituximab (Rituxan).

Levy went through the four abstracts, noting both concern and optimism. But what stood out both from his comments and from others in the room were the preliminary data from one Phase 1 study that showed one checkpoint inhibitor, nivolumab (Opdivo) from Bristol-Myers Squibb (NYSE: BMY), had absolutely no effect in 27 multiple myeloma patients.

There are several treatments available for multiple myeloma, but the disease, the second most common blood cancer, is far from managed. About the lack of immunotherapy programs to tackle the disease, Levy said, “The silence is deafening.”

Even a researcher from AbbVie (NYSE: ABBV) working on the experimental antibody elotuzumab for multiple myeloma said after the session that the nivolumab results were “disappointing.”

In response to a comment from the audience, Levy’s co-presenter Stephen Ansell of the Mayo Clinic said, “It’s certainly depressing, initially.” But he stressed that some of the interaction in the bone marrow of myeloma cells and tumor-killing T cells—which checkpoint inhibitors are meant to unleash—was a mystery that researchers were eager to explore and “get our heads around which patients to target.”

Multiple myeloma is also an outlier among hematological cancers, in that it comes from malignant B cells like several leukemias and lymphomas, but unlike those cancers, it does not continue to express a B cell protein called CD19, as the University of Pennsylvania’s Carl June pointed out in his talk Sunday.

Nivolumab had much better results in Hodgkin’s lymphoma, as did pembrolizumab.

These were very small sample sizes, as Levy cautioned. But the studies together confirm for Levy that Hodgkin’s is “extremely sensitive to PD-1 blockade. When the brakes were taken off, amazing things happened.”

That said, Hodgkin’s lymphoma is a relatively treatable disease. Many of those treated in the early anti-PD-1 programs had failed other treatments such as brentuximab vedotin (Adcetris) from Seattle Genetics (NASDAQ: SGEN), but if checkpoint inhibitors make it through to approval, there will still be a question of how to integrate them into current paradigms of treatment, Levy said.

Ansell spent much of his talk in a deep scientific dive into some potential factors holding back the effectiveness of checkpoint inhibitors in lymphoma—including, for example, why certain tumor microenvironments are “hostile” to T cells. Both Ansell and Levy pointed out that, as in other cancer research, there are many other proteins to target in a pathway, and checkpoint inhibition should be no different. In lymphoma research, we might soon be hearing about LAG-3 and TIM-3 as much as PD-1 and CTLA-4, said Ansell.

“And next year at ASH,” said Levy, “I anticipate more than four abstracts.”

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Immunotherapy Confidence (And Audience) Abundant At ASH T-Cell Talk

Mon, 12/08/2014 - 15:16
Alex Lash

With cancer immunotherapy tallying impressive patient results and new drug approvals, people in the field are confident about expanding its scope. That confidence was abundant in back-to-back presentations Sunday at the American Society of Hematology annual meeting before an audience into the thousands.

Two heavyweights in cancer immunotherapy, Carl June, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and Steve Rosenberg, chief of surgery at the U.S. National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, MD, fleshed out some of the more recent developments in the field and provided insight into where the companies associated with their work might be headed.

June went first, but Rosenberg best encapsulated the dizziness of the pace of progress and the broad scope of expertise needed to grasp its potential. “Here you have a surgeon talking to hematologists about immunology,” Rosenberg said with a laugh to kick off his talk. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

The audience was there to hear about a particular kind of cancer immunotherapy, in which a patient’s own T cells are extracted, genetically engineered, grown to numbers in the billions, then given back to the patient with a new protein that helps them zero in on cancer cells and kill them. There are two main types in development. “I believe both will be approved in the next several years,” said June.

June’s lab work is behind a program, CTL019, to which drug firm Novartis (NYSE: NVS) took exclusive license in a 2012 deal. (June has also worked on cell-based therapy for HIV.)

He stressed the safety of not only CTL109, which has been administered to more than 135 patients, but all programs based on T cell reengineering. In more than 1,000 “patient-years,” he said, there have been no long-term adverse effects.

The growing body of evidence from June and his peers is showing that reengineered T cells are attacking cancers quickly, then staying alive in the body to do their work. “They’re a living drug, they replicate and they persist for decades,” June said.

There have been serious side effects upon treatment, including an overdrive of the immune system called cytokine release syndrome that immunotherapies can provoke.

But the more practice oncologists have with immunotherapies, the more understanding of the underlying biology will provide strategies to deflect the side effects. At least that’s the hope. For example, investigators have seen a correlation between the amount of tumor a patient has (in blood cancers, this is often measured by the cancerous cells crowding out healthy ones in the bone marrow) and his or her susceptibility to cytokine storms, as the release syndrome is sometimes called. Identifying those patients and optimizing their doses will be important counter-strategies, said Juno Therapeutics CEO Hans Bishop. Juno, a key player in T cell therapy development and an IPO hopeful, did not participate in the ASH symposium, but Bishop and CFO Steve Harr spoke with Xconomy afterwards.

They concurred with June and Rosenberg that oncologists and developers also have pharmaceutical tools to combat side effects. Some cytokine release cases are treatable with steroids, others with the anti-inflammatory antibody tocilizumab (Actemra). Despite concern about cytokine release syndrome, the FDA sped up its typical review period and last week approved blinatumumab (Blincyto) from Amgen (NASDAQ: AMGN), albeit with a special warning and mandatory program to closely follow side effects.

Blinatumumab is an example of the other major type of cancer immunotherapy: monoclonal antibodies that engage the immune system. Some remove immune “checkpoints” that tumor cells exploit to hide from detection. Ipilumumab (Yervoy) from Bristol-Myers Squibb (NYSE: BMY) was the first, approved in 2011, and more recently was pembrolizumab (Keytruda) from Merck (NYSE: MRK). Blinatumumab works in a different way, using two different receptors to grab T cells and “recruit” them to attack malignant B cells in a rare form of acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

“People should cheer the FDA,” said Bishop. “These patients have got a terrible prognosis and the speed at which the FDA approved blinatumumab recognizes that unmet need.”

Blinatumumab’s approval was significant not just for its speed—FDA said yes based on Phase 2 data in 185 patients, 41.6 percent of whom had complete remission of their disease—but also because blinatumumab attacks tumor cells that feature the protein CD19 on their surface.

That adds an interesting wrinkle to the cancer immunotherapy race, because CD19 is also the target for most of the cell-based therapies, known as CAR or CART, now being tested in clinical trials—including the Penn-Novartis collaboration CTL019.

“We believe CAR cells can work in patients who become … Next Page »

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The Risks and Opportunities in a Startup: Age 5 Years and Up

Mon, 12/08/2014 - 11:46
Shellye Archambeau

In my last two articles, I explored the top risks and opportunities that startups face during their first five years of existence. In this conclusion to the series, I’d like to discuss the final phase of startup growth—Year 5 and up.

If your business has made it to the crucial 5-year mark, that’s a good sign. It means that the market is interested in what you have to offer, and that your startup has the potential to generate sustainable growth. However, there are still some key risks—and opportunities—to be mindful of as you embark on the next phase of your business. Being aware of them can make all the difference.

Cash Risk: Are You Managing Your Cash Flow Wisely?

In a heartfelt post-mortem analysis of his startup, Ben Yoskovitz confessed that one of the reasons his business, Standout Jobs, didn’t take off as it should have was because it raised too much money too early. And while that did boost their confidence, it also “set us on a path of building a bigger product than we should have, and committing (falsely) to our own assumptions of what would work, without fully testing them.”

Later, when the business needed more capital, it was difficult to come by. “While we raised too much, too early, we also weren’t in a position to raise a lot more, later when it would have made more sense,” rued Ben.

Cash risks such as these exist at almost every stage of a business. In the initial few months, your startup may be flush with funding. But by Year 5, it’s vital to start generating a steady source of revenue, however small. You can’t depend on venture capitalists forever.

It’s also time to take stock of your expenses. Have they stabilized in the last five years? Top investors recently expressed concerns that startups are over-spending on flashy offices and excessive hiring sprees. Meanwhile, some are building extravagant marketing campaigns that fail to justify the investment. Others are spending the bulk of their resources on unnecessary product enhancements.

Be judicious about your finances. In the next few years, you will probably need to scale up your operations, attract more customers, hire more employees, and add new infrastructure. Will you be able to balance out these expenses? The time to answer these questions is now.

Market Risk: Are You Staying in Sync with the Market as It Evolves?

In the 1970s, two college dropouts joined hands to build a smart computer. Today, that multi-billion dollar company, Apple, has not only redefined the field of computing, but also revolutionized the music and smartphone industries with its iPods, iTunes, and iPhones.

Another top brand, Google, began as a search engine. And while that still remains a core business focus, the company is now developing self-driving cars and smart eyewear, in addition to multiple other cutting-edge technologies.

Both Apple and Google aren’t afraid to evolve—and that’s why they consistently rank among the best.

Like it or not, markets are changing faster than ever. And competitors are innovating at top speed. If you don’t evolve at the same pace, you might get left behind. So, take the time to evaluate your relevance in the market. Do you think there will still be a need for your product or service in the next 5-10 years? If not, what is your game plan?

At MetricStream, we started off by producing quality and compliance management solutions—critical for businesses in the early 2000s. But the market soon changed—the number of regulations rapidly increased, and risks became more complex and intertwined. So, we moved beyond our initial offerings, and developed a broad platform that could be used to manage all risk, compliance, and governance requirements.

The key is to stay current and relevant. Keep a close watch on your competitors. What direction are they innovating in? What new products or services are they offering? How can you stay ahead of them?

Also critical, listen to your customers. Track social media conversations around your brand. What are people saying about your product or service? Provide community forums to encourage customer feedback and input. Incorporate their feedback.

And finally, examine your business model. Do you have predictable revenue? Or is it ad hoc and hard to forecast? Do you have a steady stream of clients? Or are you still waiting for the next big customer order? If so, it might be time to redesign your business strategy.

Execution Risk: Are You Successfully Implementing Your Business Model, and Can You Scale Up Effectively?

Startups experiment with different business models. Dropbox offers freemium pricing. Oyster takes a $9.95 monthly subscription fee for access to half a million books online. Snapchat runs ads. Other startups offer product licenses.

There are many ways to generate revenue. So, determine which business model works for your company and is sustainable in the long run. Only then, think about scaling up.

As you begin to broaden your impact in the market, here are a few questions: Do you have the funds and market traction to expand your business? How do you plan to scale up, selling direct? Leveraging channels? Mass marketing? Are you hiring the right talent? Are you paying attention to the company culture? And as more people come in to the organization, are you implementing standardized processes, policies, and procedures? In a small startup, it’s fairly easy to manage people. But as the team grows, you will probably need to put proper processes in place to avoid chaos and inefficiencies.

Also, as you scale up, keep your mission and values at the core of whatever you do. Let them guide every choice that your business makes. For instance, if one of your objectives is to maintain an open and communicative corporate culture, then make sure that as your team grows, there are no rigid reporting hierarchies, and that employees feel free to approach the management team with their issues and concerns.

Sustaining Growth

Once you make it past Year 5 with a stable business model and a steady source of revenue, it can be safely said that you’re moving out of startup mode and becoming an established business. A new set of risks—and rewards—await you. And there will continue to be a need for evolution and growth. What matters is how well you respond. Good luck on this next phase of your journey!

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Amid String of Exits for VenBio, a Founding Partner Leaves, Too

Fri, 12/05/2014 - 17:59
Alex Lash

With three acquisitions of its portfolio companies, San Francisco biotech investment firm venBio has had a few good exits recently. Now one of its partners is exiting, too. Kurt Von Emster, one of four venBio founders, has decamped for Abingworth, a life science venture firm with a much longer history and global reach.

Abingworth made the announcement early Friday, but as of this writing von Emster is still listed as a partner on the venBio website.

In a statement, von Emster (pictured) lauded Abingworth’s 40 year track record and called its “multifaceted platform of investment opportunities” impressive. There was no mention of venBio. Von Emster did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Abingworth, headquartered in London, said von Emster will work in the firm’s Menlo Park, CA, office, and work on investments across all stages, from early private venture to public investments, where he has previous experience.

Before he cofounded venBio, von Emster ran a hedge fund at MPM Capital that made public and private investments. VenBio has made at least two investments in public companies. Earlier this year it led a $52 million funding of Aurinia Pharmaceuticals, based in Victoria, BC, with von Emster joining the company’s board. (He is still listed as a board member.)

In 2012, venBio led an attempt to recapitalize and turn around the fortunes of struggling Swiss immunotherapy firm Cytos Biotechnology. It did not go well. After a key trial failure in asthma earlier this year, Cytos decided to wind down operations and is looking to sell its underlying technology. (Abingworth was one of venBio’s coinvestors in the Cytos recapitalization.)

However, Cytos has been the only obvious pothole in venBio’s young record. Formed in 2011 with a $180 million inaugural fund, venBio has had three big exits: The $200 million sale of Labrys Biologics to Teva Pharmaceutical, the $650 million sale of Aragon Pharmaceuticals to Johnson & Johnson, and the $725 billion sale of Seragon Pharmaceuticals to Roche’s Genentech division. (Seragon was formed around a breast-cancer drug that J&J didn’t take as part of the Aragon purchase.) All the deals had milestone payments attached that could push the final payouts much higher.

The initial returns from Labrys and Aragon alone put the fund “in positive territory,” as venBio partner Corey Goodman told Xconomy in June. Goodman also said the activity has spurred venBio to seek a second fund of $250 million to $300 in size, with the same philosophy: “We won’t start companies assuming they’ll have IPOs. We’re assuming M&A.”

Reached today, Goodman acknowledged von Emster’s departure but said venBio had no comment.

The firm has also made a long-term bet on Solstice Biologics, a San Diego startup whose scientific cofounder Steve Dowdy has created a new way to deliver RNA-based drugs into cells that, if successful, could widen the use of treatments in the relatively new field. Solstice is the exclusive licensee of the intellectual property from Dowdy’s University of California, San Diego, lab.

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Innovating with Bitcoin at MIT

Fri, 12/05/2014 - 15:03
Christian Catalini

In November, we began distributing $100 in Bitcoin to every undergraduate student at MIT. A large share of the 4,500 eligible students participated in the project.

Bitcoin is an innovative payment network that allows for instant peer-to-peer transactions with zero or very low processing fees on a worldwide scale. The objective of the study is to observe the diffusion of Bitcoin, a software-based, open-source, peer-to-peer payment system on the MIT campus.

The initiative began in April 2014 when students Jeremy Rubin and Dan Elitzer organized the idea, raised the funds from donors, and launched the MIT Bitcoin Project. I started working with these students when it quickly became clear that the project had to become a full research study and had to meet the rigorous requirements of academic research at MIT.

Observing the ways students will innovate because of their newfound Bitcoin cash should be fascinating: MIT students are tech savvy, not set in their ways, generally a bit cash strapped anyway, and often open to new innovations. In the same way that MIT gave students early access to computing resources through the Athena project in 1983, this project intends to give participants early access to a digital currency.

The Bitcoin ecosystem currently resembles the state of the Internet in the mid-90s; i.e., many of the applications that will be built on top of it have not been created. This offers a unique experience for the most inventive and entrepreneurial students at MIT, as they will have a chance to experiment and test their ideas within a campus where the diffusion of digital currencies will be years ahead of anywhere else. Essentially, participants will be the first ones to see the opportunities and possibilities the technology opens up.

From the perspective of a user, Bitcoin is very similar to digital cash, with the additional benefit of being able to prove that a transaction actually took place because of the presence of a digital public ledger. The ledger tracks every transaction using digital wallet addresses that can be thought of as pseudonyms: when transacting with Bitcoin, a user is like a writer that publishes under a pseudonym; i.e., if her/his identity is ever linked to the pseudonym (the Bitcoin address), then all the work (transactions) can be linked back to her/him.

The technology behind Bitcoin has the potential to dramatically change how we conduct transactions on a global scale, as it offers secure payments without the necessity of a costly and often slow intermediary. This could disproportionately help segments of the population that are currently underserved by financial intermediaries as well as countries with weak financial institutions.

There’s a lot of attention right now on Bitcoin as an alternative to traditional currencies such as the U.S. dollar, but what I find more interesting is the possibility for Bitcoin to be a technological platform for numerous, derivative innovations. Bitcoin lies at the intersection of software, economics, and markets. It allows for privacy and disintermediation in a way that was previously not possible.

As such, Bitcoin is just a starting point of a major wave of innovation. Recent advances in the field of cryptography, commonly associated with the “cryptocurrency revolution,” have the potential to substantially change not only digital payments and transactions, but also financial instruments, contracts, decentralized voting systems, how institutions make decisions, and how platforms and digital markets match demand and supply of digital and physical goods.

With this research project, the MIT community will have the opportunity not only to shape the evolution of digital currencies, but also to improve the lives of everyone who will use the follow-on inventions that our campus could deliver.

The ideas, inventions, and entrepreneurial endeavors the students will generate because of their early exposure to digital currencies is likely to have a profound impact on the rate and direction of innovation in this space. Digital currencies have the potential of bringing more robust financial transactions, removing the need for costly intermediaries between transactions. Digital currencies are also a platform for innovation in other related areas such as mortgage contracts, escrow contracts, loans, online identity, and voting.

We expect our students to explore these areas and create solutions for some of the most pressing, unaddressed needs. As an example, students on campus are already working on software that would allow anyone to protect their online identity using Bitcoin as a software layer, and on how to seamlessly track Bitcoin investment gains to be compliant with tax requirements. These are just two early examples of how the creativity of our students will help to shape this space.

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Innovation Hub: Are Entrepreneurs a Dying Breed?

Fri, 12/05/2014 - 10:57
Kara Miller

It feels like every day, we hear another story of a 22-year-old who sold his app for millions. But the truth about entrepreneurs may be very different. In fact, if you look at the official data, entrepreneurship in the U.S. has been in decline for over thirty years.

We talked to Ben Casselman, the chief economics writer for FiveThirtyEight, about how to reconcile the swelling of entrepreneurial spirit with the apparent decline of actual startups across the country.

[This interview has been edited and condensed. For the full conversation, visit]

Kara Miller: Give me a sense of sectors here. Is this decline mostly happening in the retail area, where people can’t compete with the big guys, like Walmart?

Ben Casselman: That was my first thought—that it was a decline in small business and mom-and-pops. Once you look at the data, though, it turns out that’s not really true. One of the things that’s most remarkable about this decline is how broad-based it is. Even the technology sector has been in decline since 2000. It’s not just a question of this being isolated to a couple of sectors or a couple of parts of the country.

KM: That’s hard for me to believe. We’ve had people on our show who have said they’ve never seen this number of startups before.

BC: We’re looking at companies that have at least one employee, so if you program an app in your basement in your free time, you may think of yourself as an entrepreneur, but you’re not going to show up in census data. There’s also an argument that venture capital is contributing to this, by focusing only on a very isolated couple of sectors. If you’re in the hot sector today, you get venture funding, but if you’re outside of that very narrow sector, you don’t.

KM: Americans have bought the idea of the entrepreneurship economy enough for a TV program about startups like “Shark Tank” to earn a place in prime time. But it sounds like you’re saying we shouldn’t be deluded by this kind of hype.

BC: Sometimes people will think of entrepreneurial activity in a way that doesn’t actually turn out to be a genuine startup. An example is We feel like a startup—we’re a small team, we all work together in an office that looks “startup-y”—but we’re owned by ESPN, which is owned by Disney, one of the largest corporations in the world. We are entrepreneurial, but we are not an entrepreneurial venture, in this sense.

KM: It seems like the tools are in place to allow people to be their own bosses pretty quickly. Is that going to change things at all?

BC: Until recently, a lot of the biggest gains from technology actually accrued to the largest companies. That could be starting to change. A friend of mine in Baltimore has a little 3D printer that he can use to mock up prototypes for things he’s thinking about making. And you can go and start a website for nothing, or rent exactly as much server space as you need on Amazon at a minute’s notice. I think we could be getting to the point where it isn’t just the big companies that are able to benefit from technology, it’s the little guys, too. But we haven’t seen the evidence of that yet. We have to hope, but the jury is still out.

Mikaela Lefrak contributed to this write-up.

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“Connect 3.0” Names San Diego’s Most Innovative Products of 2014

Fri, 12/05/2014 - 05:17
Bruce V. Bigelow

A security startup that detects anomalous cyber behavior and a life sciences company that makes 3D liver tissue for use in drug toxicity testing were among eight San Diego companies that won engraved Lucite trophies last night for the most innovative products of 2014.

The awards were handed out by Connect, the San Diego nonprofit organization that supports local innovation and entrepreneurship. It was the first time Connect has handed out its most innovative product awards at dinner since the event began in 1988.

“After 26 luncheons, this is the first time they’ve let you celebrate at night,” joked Maureen Cavanaugh, a San Diego broadcaster who served as master of ceremonies for the evening. The annual awards were conceived as a way to highlight the technical wizardry in new products introduced by San Diego companies over the previous 18 months. More than 600 people attended last night’s event at the Hyatt Regency La Jolla hotel.

Greg McKee

The break from the luncheon tradition was one sign that a new CEO is now running the show at Connect. Greg McKee, a former biopharmaceutical executive and financier was recruited to take over Connect nine months ago, following the untimely death of Duane Roth in a bicycling accident in 2013.

In a brief introduction, McKee put his own mark on the Connect franchise—referring to the venerable organization as “Connect 3.0,” and describing it as “a business accelerator that creates and scales great companies in the technology and … Next Page »

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West Coast Biotech Roundup: Amgen, Ariosa, Avanir, Audentes & More

Thu, 12/04/2014 - 16:21
Alex Lash

Where is biotech innovation? All over, we would contend, but according to The Scientist magazine, San Diego has been an especially good place to look this year. The publication listed its top 10 life science innovations of 2014, and five are from San Diego companies. Fifty percent. It might have helped that 40 percent of The Scientist’s five judges were San Diego locals: Domain Associates managing partner Kim Kamdar and Isis Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: ISIS) co-founder David Ecker.

It also helps that San Diego is a hotbed of sequencing technology, and 2014 was a particularly juicy time for that field. No. 1 on the list is the Dragen Bio-IT processor from San Diego-based Edico Genome, developed to accelerate the analysis of whole genome sequencing data. The rest of the list, which focuses on tests, technologies, and research tools, not therapeutics, is here.

We’ll certainly hear about biomedical innovation this weekend as the American Society of Hematology meeting convenes in San Francisco. Blood cancers and other disorders are a near horizon for all manner of genetic-manipulation technologies and new types of cell-based therapy. We’ll have reports from San Francisco for you, and of course you’ll be able to catch up on it all in this space next week.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Thanks to the long Thanksgiving weekend, we have even more items to round up for you. Let’s get to it.

— Thousand Oaks, CA-based Amgen received the FDA’s green light for blinatumomab (Blincyto) in a small subset of patients with acute lymphoblastic lymphoma. It is one of the few immunotherapies approved for cancer, and it got the nod five months faster than expected thanks to various FDA designations to speed up review.

—A week earlier, Amgen had to pull its stomach-cancer treatment rilotumumab from Phase 3 trials because the arm of the trial using rilo, as it’s known, had more patient deaths than the non-rilo arm.

—Dendreon’s bankruptcy case will have key hearings next week as the Seattle immunotherapy company tries to find a buyer with a minimum $275 million bid. How likely is that, and how rare is a biotech bankruptcy? We explore those two questions here.

—Facing tough competition in the noninvasive prenatal test business, Ariosa Diagnostics jumped into the arms of Roche, which is paying an undisclosed amount for the San Jose firm.

—Audentes Therapeutics of San Francisco landed a $42.5 million Series B round as it develops gene therapies for rare diseases. Its two lead candidates are for Pompe disease and X-Linked myotubular myopathy, a muscle disorder. Neither is yet in clinical trials. Deerfield Management led the round.

—San Rafael, CA-based BioMarin Pharmaceutical bought Dutch firm Prosensa for $680 million plus $160 million more if Prosensa’s treatment for Duchenne’s muscular dystrophy passes regulatory muster in the U.S. and E.U.

—San Diego-based Neothetics (NASDAQ: NEOT) sold 4.65 million shares in its pre-Thanksgiving IPO and raised $65 million. The company is trying to repurpose an approved asthma drug as a means of reducing belly fat. Before the IPO, venture investors Domain Associates had a 36 percent stake, Alta Partners had 30 percent, and RMI Investments held 17 percent.

—Antibody technology firm Ablexis of San Francisco said Thursday that it has settled a lawsuit brought by Regeneron Pharmaceuticals over its AlivaMab transgenic mouse, which drug makers use to develop antibody-based therapeutics. Ablexis also said that after four years of limited exclusive licensing, the AlivaMab mouse is now available for non-exclusive license.

—PneumRx of Mountain View, CA, was acquired by British healthcare firm BTG for $230 million up front and up to $245 million in future milestones. PneumRx makes a device called the RePneu Coil to treat emphysema; it has been on the European market for six years but is not yet approved in the U.S.

—Japan’s Otsuka Pharmaceutical has bought Aliso Viejo, CA-based Avanir Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: AVNR) for $3.5 billion, or $17 a share, to grab Avanir’s portfolio of neurology products. Chief among them is the approved combination of dextromethorphan and quinidine (Nuedexta) for pseudobulbar affect—involuntary emotional outbursts tied to neurological disease or injury.

—Two months after laying off 70 percent of its staff, Exelixis (NASDAQ: EXEL) of South San Francisco, CA, said its Phase 3 COMET-2 trial of cabozantinib … Next Page »

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